June 3, 2012
Last summer was a particularly brutal one for my elderly parents in Oklahoma. Drought and record high temperatures made life into a literal hell there. That summer broke a number of state temperature records, including more consecutive days with temperatures over 105 degrees (July 31-August 6); most 100+ degree days in July (27); and most consecutive days with temperatures over 90 degrees (June 1-August
10) (NOAA, “Oklahoma Temperature Facts”). My 86-year-old mother was at one point unable to leave the house for 40 straight days, because the temperature remained in the 90s, even at night.
The hellish temperatures were compounded by draught and wildfires. From December 2010 through March 2011 were the driest months ever in Oklahoma history since 1921 – well before the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s (Huffington Post, “2011 Drought”). The state’s priairie’s were dry tinder, ready to burst into flame at any moment. Wildfires across the state burned thousands of acres and – in August 2011 – consumed at least 10 homes in Oklahoma City: “Utility poles lit up like matchsticks and power was out to more than 7,000 homes and businesses” (which meant no air conditioning in the lethal heat) (USA Today, “Fires Burn Dozens of Homes in Texas, Oklahoma”).
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),
these phemonena are not unique to Oklahoma – the entire decade from 2000-2009 was “the hottest on record”. They are not a random statistical fluke either. This spring, measuring stations across the Arctic are registering 400 parts per billion of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to NOAA, it has been 800,000 years since the earth saw carbon dioxide levels this high (Bloomberg Businessweek, “Warming Gas Levels Hit ‘Troubling Milestone'”). In other words, we can expect more Hell where that came from.
Climate change is, in the words of former Vice President Al Gore, an “inconvenient truth”. In order to alter the direction of climate change, it requires long-term changes of behavior on the part of large sectors of the global population – particularly in the US, where we use far more than our share of the world’s energy resources. We have to collectively re-think how we live, how we work and how we burn fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal in order to power our daily rounds – and the US should be leading the way in this discussion. And we have to do it NOW.
Unfortunately, large changes in behavior have to be triggered by large changes in thinking. Political and eocnomic institutions (particularly those funded by the oil, gas and coal industries) are extremely resistant to change, even in the face of conclusive evidence of impending global catastrophe. The Hebrew Bible reading this week from the prophet Isaiah is set “the year King Uzziah died” – approximately 742 BCE – when the great power of Assyria was expanding its borders. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was likewise facing impending catastrophe if Assyria kept expanding in its direction. The prophet Isaiah was trying to wake the Northern Kingdom up out of its contented state of greed and corruption to face an inconvenient truth (the Assyrians would soon conquer the Northern Kingdom and turn Judah to the south into a puppet state).
When Isaiah is called to be a prophet of YHWH, the Lord makes a strange demand of him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10). The Lord, here, is using irony to wake the people up. It is precisely in telling the people that they are blind (and deserve to stay that way) that they are given an opportunity to wake up NOW.
Isaiah tells them the consequences of remaining blind and deaf to the inconvenient truth. The Lord YHWH says that the people wil remain willingly ignorant “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled” (vv.11-13). Do we have to wait until the earth is turned into a hellhole to wake up? Do we have to wait until our homes and fields are burning down around our ears to learn to take care of creation?
Instead of the Psalm this week, I included an excerpt from the Epistle of Paul to the Romans. Paul writes to the church in Rome: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:20, 22-23). We can hear all creation groaning, but it will not stop groaning until we redeem ourselves and our planet by repenting and turning our lives around. This does not simply mean crying “Lord, Lord”, but making concrete changes in our lives and demanding that our leaders make concrete changes in the lives of our nations. It means opening ourselves up – fully and immediately – to the Holy Spirit, and feeling our innate connectedness to the earth and to earth other. Let us attune ourselves to the groaning of creation around us, wake up, and do something about it.